Men, Stoics, and the American Psychological Association

The recently released American Psychological Association’s (APA) Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men has caused quite a stir. Is it a welcome effort to better society and save men from their own worst traits? Or is it a politically trendy set of generalizations that emphasize the bad in traditional masculinity, obscure the good in men, and proffer an ill-advised attempt at social engineering?

It is an interesting question, and if we want to move forward from here, today’s customary response (“I have my preset answer, my side is 100% right, and the other side can have no good points because they are de facto 100% wrong”) is probably not going to get us very far.

Take the following oft-quoted passage: “Traditional masculinity – marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression – is, on the whole, harmful.”

There is no doubt that some men are over the top in these categories, resulting in harm to themselves and those around them, but are all four traits intrinsically negative or can they (or some of them) contribute to positive outcomes (in men and women) as well?

Let the debate continue on the other three, but my nerdish bookishness forces me to defend my brothers and sisters of the stoical persuasion. The APA may make some fine points, and they may not be all that different in tone from the 2007 Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women (although a tone-test would be interesting), but for an organization of this stature, the disdain for stoicism reflects an astonishingly simplistic and anti-intellectual attitude toward that rich philosophical tradition.

Let me refer the curious reader to this very brief summary of stoicism, and he or she can weight the merits from there.

xxx

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Stoics in a nutshell

When I hear “Stoic” used in the pejorative sense, as “icy and unfeeling,” I feel a little sorry for Marcus Aurelius. Sure, he was a Roman Emperor and probably managed just fine without my sympathies, but his Meditations, informed by the Stoic thought of slave-philosopher, Epictetus, were anything but icy and unfeeling. I also wince a little on my own behalf, because my own spiritual (or moral or intellectual) house is built in part with the following materials – one overarching goal and two principles — drawn from the Stoics.

Goal: To keep the soul (or psyche) tranquil and focused

Principles:

1. Always concentrate your energy on what you can control, never on what you can’t control.

2. In everything you do, never lose sight of your moral purpose.

It is true that the Stoics found reason a steadier charioteer than emotion (i.e., better at keeping you keyed to these principles and goal), but who knows, maybe they were right about this.